By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A cancer survivor swam the English Channel four times without stopping, according to NBC News. American woman Sarah Thomas finished her fourth nonstop crossing of the Channel on September 17th, becoming the first person to do so. Her story exemplifies the classic “hero’s journey.”
The NBC News article states that Sarah Thomas, Colorado resident and a survivor of breast cancer, has become the first person in history to swim across the English Channel four times nonstop. She swam for 54 hours and 13 minutes, traversing more than 130 miles. She was used to swimming long distances before her diagnosis, for which she underwent treatment and recovered well enough to make this record-breaking athletic achievement. Overcoming adversity and positively affecting others are part of the classic “hero’s journey” written about and aspired to for thousands of years.
The High Cost of Living
“Part of what makes someone a hero is the adversity they go through in their lives,” trauma specialist Molly Birkholm said. “The challenges they experience are, in some way, the cost of admission of living a life of purpose and meaning. It’s also what builds resilience.”
Birkholm said that these are common threads in the experience of many heroes—and not just famous ones. “It’s also the shared experience of teachers, doctors, parents, and grandparents who every day in their own way find challenge, meaning, and purpose in the world around them while making a difference in the lives of others,” she said.
In other words, any seemingly ordinary person can walk the path of the hero. We don’t need superpowers or frequent extraordinary circumstances in which we defy death. On the contrary, all we need is room for improvement or growth and the courage to face the road to it.
The Hero’s Journey, Part 1
Joseph Campbell identified the classic “hero’s journey” as an archetypal 17-step process, but Birkholm explained our journeys through an abridged version that may sound familiar to readers, movie fans, or anyone struggling with personal growth.
Initially, the hero of the story lives in an ordinary world. Then, they receive a “call to adventure,” usually in a moment of crisis, in which they realize they must change somehow in order to keep living. Third, comes a reluctance to accept the call—a moment of doubt that most of us experience but may hesitate to admit.
Next, the hero meets a mentor. Often the mentor has lived the same journey or has experience with it, like a teacher or a physical therapist who can point the hero in the right direction. The following step is the real beginning of the journey, often called “crossing the threshold.” “The threshold symbolizes leaving behind the world is comfortable with and stepping into the unknown ahead,” Birkholm said. “We refer to the sixth step as tests, allies, and enemies. Obstacles get thrown at the hero, and amidst the process of navigating these challenges, the hero attempts to discover who their allies and enemies are.”
This sixth step is a difficult one because the hero often makes mistakes and again calls himself or herself into judgment and feels uncertain. If you’ve ever made a major life decision your family or close friends haven’t supported, you may know this feeling.
The Hero’s Journey, Part 2
After that comes what Birkholm calls “the approach to the inmost cave,” with the cave representing the hero’s greatest fears and what he or she must lose from themselves in order to continue to grow. Learning these fears often requires lessons learned from the journey so far, which strengthen the hero in order to prepare for “the ordeal.” The ordeal usually involves the hero facing their biggest fear or obstacle and discovering how to adapt and overcome it. In film and literature, this is usually the “final fight” between the hero and the villain.
“The ninth step is the reward, or seizing of the sword,” Birkholm said. “Here we see the hero transcend their lower self to reach a higher state of being. They rise with renewed power, intuition, and strength, along with a deeper wisdom and a broadened view of possibilities.”
Finally, the hero returns home, observing their old life from a new perspective and crossing back over the threshold with strength and wisdom replacing the trepidation of the previous crossing. During the penultimate step—the 11th step or “resurrection”—the hero returns home only to find that they must face their final and biggest fear: the fear of their former self dying or keeping their current, better self going. “The hero, who was born amidst the adventure and who has now earned their new merits, dies if they return to the life before,” Birkholm said. “To resurrect, the hero must shed that former skin and fully embrace the expansiveness of their new reality.”
Only after overcoming all these challenges can the journey reach its 12th, and final step, in which the hero “steps fully into their new truth and embodies it in the ordinary world,” Birkholm said. “During this phase, the hero realizes the full value of what they have gained. They then empower other people to confront their demons, hardships, and bullies.”
Sarah Thomas has certainly overcome her adversity and fears by living her life so fully after her cancer diagnosis and treatment, and anyone can also undergo their own hero’s journey. Molly Birkholm emphasized that the real story is about realizing irrefutable truths and overcoming obstacles, not fighting dragons or beating up supervillains. Leaving fear and ego behind can help us run courageously towards better and fuller lives.
Molly Birkholm contributed to this article. Molly Birkholm is a trauma specialist and iRest® trainer affiliated with the iRest Institute; a cofounder of Warriors at Ease; and the CEO of Molly Birkholm, Inc. As a yoga and meditation teacher and trainer, professional speaker, consultant, and writer, she inspires others to create meaningful life changes using research-based yoga and mindfulness meditation techniques.